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Francois Hollande: France's 'Normal' President-Elect

  • Claire Bigg

Francois Hollande will become the first Socialist to be elected president of France in more than 20 years.

Francois Hollande will become the first Socialist to be elected president of France in more than 20 years.

His detractors call him Monsieur Flanby, after a wobbly caramel pudding.

He's a plump, mild-mannered, bespectacled 57-year-old who rides a scooter and describes himself as "Mr. Normal."

Yet, Francois Hollande has become France's next president and the first Socialist to be elected to the post in more than 20 years.

With only votes from abroad left to count, Hollande won the May 6 runoff contest with 51.67 percent of the vote to 48.33 percent for incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The Anti-Sarkozy

So what appealed to French voters about Hollande? Mostly, it seems, the fact that he is not Sarkozy.

"I think we must see the...victory of Francois Hollande as a negative of Sarkozism," says Christian Makarian, the managing editor of the French weekly "L'Express."

"Before launching into any kind of analysis of Francois Hollande, there is in favor of the Socialist candidate a lassitude toward, maybe even total rejection of Nicolas Sarkozy's work and personality."

Hollande himself described the election as "a repudiation of the outgoing president," whose brash lifestyle and tendency to make tall promises alienated many voters.

Hollande skillfully tapped into mounting weariness of the political elite and Sarkozy's "bling-bling" lifestyle, choosing as his campaign slogan "Change is now."

'Mr. Normal'

Justice was the second central theme of his campaign. He has promised to slash the president's salary by one-third and cancel the judicial immunity enjoyed by the head of state.

"The change is now in progress. Nothing, I repeat, nothing will stop it, it now depends on the French people," Hollande told a rally after the first round.

"The choice is simple: either continue a policy that has failed with an outgoing candidate who has divided, or rebuild the country with justice with a new president of the republic who will unite."

In contrast to the flamboyant Sarkozy, Hollande is seen as an earnest, if somewhat dull, career politician who rose through the party ranks on hard work.

Perhaps the spiciest aspect of his persona is his love life. He is now in a relationship with journalist Veronique Trierweiler after spending more than 25 years with former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal, with whom he has four children. The couple never married.

Growth Above Austerity

On the economic front, Sarkozy's questionable performance -- with debt standing above 90 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment at about 3 million, its highest level since 1999 -- further dented his popularity.

Despite Hollande's lack of practical experience in economics, many French see him as a reliable administrator capable of steering their country through the economic storm.

He advocates growth rather than austerity to pull France out of recession and promises higher taxes on the wealthy to fund job creation, in particular a 75 percent tax rate on income above 1 million euros ($1.32 million). Hollande, who once said on television "I hate the rich," has also pledged to rein in financial speculation.

His proposals have struck a chord with many voters hit hard by unemployment and the austerity measures implemented under Sarkozy's tenure.

"Austerity politics is generating larger rather than smaller debt levels and people are realizing that growth is the key," says Christopher Bickerton, an associate professor of international relations at Sciences Po University in Paris. "So there's been a bit of luck, I think, for the Socialists in that respect."

Experience Questions

Another of Hollande's weak spots is his absence of governmental experience.

Currently a member of parliament in his rural constituency of Correze, in southwest France, after almost a decade as secretary of the Socialist Party, he has long been a familiar face in France. But he has never held government office and is virtually unknown abroad.

But this newness to France's national political scene has actually earned him many followers, particularly among the young, by contributing to his image as the face of change.

"Across Europe, a new generation of leaders is emerging who are much younger than in France and who have not held governmental posts in the past. And this is considered normal," Makarian of "L'Express" says.

"Only in France must a presidential candidate have previously performed all possible functions so that he is neither fresh nor new when he eventually becomes president. In this sense, Francois Hollande represents a genuine rupture."

Inclusive Stance

In another stark and deliberate contrast to Sarkozy, he sought to attract voters from migrant descent and underprivileged suburbs where the outgoing president -- who famously pledged to clean out the outskirts of Paris "with a water hose" -- is deeply unpopular.

Sarkozy, on the contrary, struck a markedly patriotic tone following the success of right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round, calling for tighter borders and warning about the dangers of globalization to the French lifestyle.

One of Hollande's recent campaign videos shows him shaking hands with locals in a Paris suburb as French citizens of various ethnic backgrounds hold up their voter's cards. Rather provocatively, the song scoring the ad was the hit single by U.S. rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West called "Niggas In Paris."

But while assiduously promoting change, Hollande has repeatedly insisted that both he and his program will remain exactly the same now that it seems he has been elected president.
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​


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